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Merry Clayton on Her Hard-Won Comeback and How Faith Saved Her Life

“People need to hear that they can make it, no matter what they’ve been through,” the legendary backup singer says, reflecting on her first new album following a devastating 2014 accide…

When Merry Clayton woke up in the hospital, she just had one question. In June 2014, three months after Twenty Feet From Stardom, the documentary telling the story of the legendary backup singer, won an Oscar, Clayton suffered a near-fatal car accident in her Los Angeles hometown, resulting in months of hospitalization and the amputation of both her legs. A team full of doctors and nurses surrounded her bed to inform Clayton of her life-altering surgery. 

“When they gave me the news, I asked them, ‘Well, did anything happen to my throat?’” the 72-year-old singer tells Rolling Stone. “They said, ‘No, we knew you were a singer, and nothing happened to your throat.’ And then I started to sing. My sister looked at me, and she looked at the doctors, and she said, ‘She’ll be alright. She’s singing, she’s good. She’ll make it through this.’”

Clayton’s sister, who passed away in 2018, was right: Less than six years after her life-altering accident, Clayton — who has released records under her own name since 1971, but remains best known for her appearances on everything from the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” — has returned with Beautiful Scars, her first studio album in 27 years. Beautiful Scars is in many ways a long-awaited sequel to Clayton’s 1994 gospel debut, Miracles. The album merges traditional gospel songs like Sam Cooke’s “Touch the Hem of His Garment” with spiritual originals from songwriters like Diane Warren and Chris Martin. 

“This record was divinely planned, every piece of it: every song, every musician, every singer,” says Clayton. “I knew that God wasn’t finished with me yet, and that he had another plan in mind. If he hadn’t had another plan, I wouldn’t have come through the way I did. Because I absolutely came through that accident. I came through shining like gold.”

Rolling Stone recently spoke with Clayton about her new album, her half-century-plus career, her faith, and more.